Sharps & flats

Oh, Captain, my Captain.

Published June 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Even though in 1968 few Americans understood Don Van Vliet, aka Captain Beefheart, he still possessed a star's aura. As Beefheart's New Magic Band guitarist, Bill Harkleroad (aka Zoot Horn Rollo), writes in his just-published memoir, "Lunar Notes" (SAF Publishing), "You have to remember that at the time, Don was my hero ... I was living in such fear of going to Vietnam and dying. Instead I was not going to Vietnam. I was in a band, I was going to be famous, I was going to make money, I was going to get laid -- all these wonderful things were going to happen."

Nope. Instead, the band began living commune-style in Los Angeles. They had to shoplift bologna from the supermarket because they weren't getting paid. Although Zoot Horn doesn't directly compare the Captain to Charles Manson, there are many similarities. The band became Beefheart's "family" -- the Captain lectured them for 20 hours at a time, outlined the sacrifices he was making, pointed out everyone else's shortcomings, lectured about Andy Warhol, and -- finally -- went on for hours about the correct way to hold a cigarette. "I don't think [Beefheart] deliberately sat down to brainwash us in the military sense of the word," Zoot Horn reports. But brainwashed they were. Thank God that Sharon Tate wasn't a neighbor or Beefheart's family might have gone over and ... smoked cigarettes with her.

In 1968, the Beatles released their first double album and made musical history. Beefheart and his disciples also released a double album, "Trout Mask Replica" -- which in many ways has become just as legendary as "The White Album." One myth has it that "Trout Mask Replica" was written in a day and recorded over a year. Another has it that the music was recorded in a day. This is closer to the truth. A year's worth of songs were recorded in two days. The first session was taped at the house in Topanga Canyon where the band crashed. The next was taped in a regular studio in Glendale, the session produced by Beefheart's high school buddy, Frank Zappa, who did little except turn everyone's amps up to the max.

As for the music, Zoot Horn describes it best when he says Beefheart was "Jackson Pollock trying to play John Lee Hooker." The album is full of "sound sculptures," songs like "Hairpie 1," "Hairpie 2" and "Dachau Blues." Each tune is full of polyphonic and polyrhythmic squawking, banging and plucking.

"Grow Fins" is the new Captain Beefheart box set of previously unreleased cuts put out by guitarist John Fahey's boutique Revenant label. It features chaotic instrumentals from the legendary "Trout" sessions as well as 12 minutes of the Captain jawing with a female neighbor in the bugged Topanga Canyon house ("Did you know Herb Albert overdubs his trumpet?" Beefheart asks. The conversation goes downhill from there).

"Grow Fins" is a labor of love. It has five discs (the first two are demos and live cuts from 1965-68, full of confused energy), a 109-page biography and four video cuts of live performance footage from '68, '69, '71 and '73. You can view the video cuts on your computer if you have QuickTime 3.02. As a cultural product, this box doesn't put the good Captain's career in proper historical perspective. It will only interest Beefheart fanatics with deep pockets.

Buddha Records has also jumped on the Beefheart wagon by re-releasing two early records, both with extra cuts. His first official album, "Safe as Milk" (1967) is the most exciting re-release in years. The first cuts are great, bluesy, derivative rockers -- safe as milk indeed. Beefheart's voice is 50 percent soul; the rest is white-man-singin'-the-blues. As the tracks progress, the music gets weird. Weirder. It climaxes on cut No. 6, "Electricity," when Beefheart starts doing this low, guttural, satanic thing with his voice while electric guitars and a theremin play. The theremin, as you may know, is that crazy instrument that uses the electromagnetic field around a player's hands to produce a spooky sound similar to a musical saw.

The booklet in "Grow Fins" reveals that Beefheart was hooked up with a Svengali-manager named Kransnow, who tried to turn the good Captain into a superstar. As the theremin was added to "Electricity," Kransnow reportedly pleaded, "Don, take the electronic bullshit out of there! It's too weird! I'll hire you some broad to sing the parts ..."

If management didn't understand Beefheart, guitar virtuoso Ry Cooder was just as confused. Cooder played on "Safe as Milk," but when Beefheart's Magic Band played at a San Francisco love-in as a warm-up for the Monterey Pop Festival, and Beefheart fled the stage because a girl in the audience had turned into a fish before his LSD-besotted eyes, Cooder quit. The band did not play the Monterey festival. The band did not become famous like Jimi Hendrix.

The Magic Band didn't roll up and die, however. They recorded another album. But Kransnow doctored the tapes to make the cuts more psychedelic. Beefheart disowned the result, "Strictly Personal," but Buddha's "The Mirror Man Sessions" contains the unadulterated cuts, which show the Magic Band pleasantly treading water after the triumph of "Safe as Milk."

Although the booklet in "Grow Fins" thoroughly covers the Captain's history from 1965 to 1982, the first four discs cover the first five years of his work, while disc No. 5 reduces the remaining 13 years of music to cuts of the Captain singing a cappella on the radio or accompanied by Zappa's guitar. Or doodling on the Mellotron, yelling at the audience to shut up. In 1983, sadly, Beefheart abandoned music just as Rimbaud had abandoned poetry over 100 years before. Although Beefheart's new music, "Doc at Radar Station" and "Ice Cream for Crow," was as punchy as it had ever been, he was no longer too weird for America -- Don Van Vliet appeared on both "Saturday Night Live" and David Letterman.

So where did Beefheart go? Whereas Rimbaud ran guns in Africa, Beefheart exiled himself to the Mojave Desert to devote himself to his whimsical abstract paintings. Over the years, rumors circulated that Beefheart was ill. That he had MS. That he was plagued by vampires. Whatever the truth, his reputation is not enhanced by "Grow Fins."

Might as well create your own box set by putting "Safe as Milk" (1967), "Lick My Decals Off, Baby" (just as brilliant, not as indulgent as "Trout Mask Replica") and "Doc at the Radar Station" (1980) inside an empty cracker box. This is the only Beefheart box you'll need. Don't think this is faint praise. You really do need the music of Captain Beefheart.

By David Bowman

David Bowman is the author of the novel "Bunny Modern" and the nonfiction book "This Must Be the Place: The Adventures of the Talking Heads in the 20th Century."

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